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A proposal to cap Mount Rainier’s police budget appears dead-on-arrival, after three of five City Council members indicated opposition.
The measure, the brainchild of City Councilor Scott Cecil, would commit the city to restricting the police budget at about 25 percent of total budget expenditures. Cecil framed the proposal as exploratory, intended to start a dialogue on City Council about the appropriate size of the city police department. But during discussion at their Jan. 26, 2021, worksession, Councilors Luke Chesek, Celina Benitez, and Bryan Knedler all indicated they opposed capping the budget in any way. Mayor Malinda Miles was not present at the meeting.
The debate is notable as an example of how the policy demands that emerged from 2020’s revived civil rights movement are playing out at the local level, especially in Mount Rainier where activists have demonstrated the ability to activate hundreds of participants for Black Lives Matter rallies and stop evictions as they happen.
For context, since 2018, the city’s police budgets, when first approved have fluctuated from as little as $1.2 million and 19 percent of the budget in 2019 to as high as $$2.7 million and 37 percent of the budget for 2021 (though a recently-uncovered budget surplus later drove that share down to 31 percent of the city’s budget.) Added together, the city has budgeted 28.8 percent of its funds toward the police department since 2018.
In a Jan. 24, 2021, email to constituents, Cecil said he was happy with the current police department, and he wants the department to be an effective agency.
“I am hoping to move our community in a direction where we turn to alternatives to armed police officers to address problems which do not pose a direct, violent threat to public health and safety” said Cecil. “For example, and in my opinion, we don’t need armed police officers in order to engage in traffic enforcement, nor parking enforcement, nor for non-violent neighbor disputes, nor for crimes which do not have a victim.”
Cecil said he hoped restricting the police budget would allow its officers to focus on violent crime “rather than to have their time and resources consumed by doing work better suited for social workers.”
Chesek, during the meeting, said he opposed capping the police budget because the city is too small to control police costs on a year-to-year basis.
“I don’t think it addresses the structural issue with Mount Rainier, which is that we lack the economy of scale,” said Chesek. “It is difficult to have a police force of one-to-three officers on duty with city our size. It is just going to be expensive. That poses some issues in and of itself regarding costs.”
Chesek went on to propose Mount Rainier seriously consider merging with other neighboring police departments.
“I think we need to start exploring where it might make sense to start consolidating our police forces with other jurisdictions. There are five police chiefs between Brentwood, Mount Rainier, Hyattsville, Colmar Manor and Cottage City, each with about $100,000 in salary costs,” said Chesek. “Until you address that economy of scale issue, it’s really hard to find ways to do alternative policing.”
Others agreed the city needs flexibility in its police budget. Though each also voiced support for alternative policing methods, and each asserted the Mount Rainier police department was successfully implementing community-based police methods.
“I think an appropriate funding level is what is needed,” said Knedler. “Over the years, that has changed and it will change again…I am not interested in capping anything.”
Benitez declined to support “capping at 25 percent, or any percent,” but emphasized she supported “diversifying” police funding to allow for more alternative policing models.